Only 'Sith' hits the $300 million mark

The foreign box office has come back to earth following a stunning perf in 2004.

Grosses slid during the first half of 2005 in several key markets, with Germany down 14% to $385 million compared with the same period in 2004, while Australia trails by 12% at $264 million, Spain’s off 8% to $238 million and France is down 6% to $460 million, according to Nielsen EDI statistics.

The United Kingdom — the largest offshore market — has edged down 1.9% to $638 million, and Mexico has moved up 1.5% to $210 million.

Distributors aren’t alarmed, however, noting the first half of last year saw exceptional performances from half a dozen films, led by “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “The Last Samurai,” “Troy,” “Shrek 2,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

All six topped $300 million; “Azkaban” took in $540 million while “Return of the King” grossed $425 million in 2004 along with $317 million in 2003. “The Passion of the Christ” also surprised the foreign market early with $240 million.

Starry perf

By comparison, only one 2005 film has gone past $300 million — the much-awaited “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” which had hit $358 million overseas as of Sunday. Two others, “Meet the Fockers” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” have topped $200 million; “Hitch” and “Kingdom of Heaven” have exceeded $150 million; “Robots,” “The Aviator,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Incredibles” and “National Treasure” have topped $100 million in 2005 grosses.

Overall offshore business boomed in 2004, with 20th Century Fox estimating a total of $12.5 billion, up a remarkable 24% over 2003; Hollywood majors saw their share of international grosses increase 15% to $9.2 billion. All told, a record two dozen films cracked the $100 million mark in international grosses in 2004.

So it’s not a surprise to see the biz cool down a bit this year. Studios note that “Batman Begins,” “Madagascar” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” have launched well and that “War of the Worlds” should bring in massive numbers starting June 29.

And potential hits “Stealth,” “Fantastic Four,” “The Island,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Bewitched” will all see major pushes later this summer in offshore markets. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” should see huge numbers late this year.

“What we’re seeing this year is more of the same trends, with one or two big pictures dominating at once,” noted Jay Sands, Sony senior VP of international operations. “We’re seeing some very big surprises, like ‘Hitch.’ But the international business is very hard to figure, even after the films open.”

Better infrastructure

The foreign exhibition has benefited from a beefed-up infrastructure, particularly in such markets as Spain, Mexico and Russia, and the ongoing popularity of a wide variety of U.S. films, even including such seemingly American fare as “The Pacifier,” which is approaching $80 million offshore.

BVI VP David Kornblum noted, “By stressing its universal themes of a fish-out-of-water comedy, we’ve been able to make ‘The Pacifier’ culturally significant in a lot of different markets.”

The trickiest part of foreign exhibition continues to be timing of release dates, particularly with the need to go day-and-date with the domestic release on tentpole films, driven by the need to maximize the marketing spending and close the window on piracy.

But day-and-date deprives marketers the chance to adjust the campaign gradually and can limit the availability of talent to promote the pic in foreign markets.

“It’s great if you have the right date,” noted Sony senior exec VP Mark Zucker. “But you can get caught in a squeeze if you’re up against similar films at the same time.”

Weather woes

Another headache for distribs comes from the impact of warm weather on foreign moviegoing, particularly in Europe. Warners estimated that hot weather curbed moviegoing in Europe by as much as 30% last weekend as “Batman Begins” launched.

“You really are at the whim of the weather,” said Joe Ortiz, Fox’s exec director of international distribution. “People in Europe seem to savor warm days.”

For Fox, 2005 has been an exceptional year so far, with overseas grosses nearing $1 billion thanks to the obvious contributions of “Sith,” “Robots,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” along with impressive numbers from “Hide and Seek” ($71 million), “Be Cool” and “Sideways,” which managed $37 million offshore. It’s Fox’s best foreign year since 1998, when “Titanic” set the all-time international record with $1.2 billion.

Ortiz said he’s not overly worried about the overall health of the foreign business because of its unique nature.

“People still want to see movies on a bigscreen rather than just watching them on DVD,” he said.

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